Superstores are selling cans under the brand name "Fortune Tuna", imported from Singapore's Hosen Group, which prepares the food product by processing tuna fish. A can weighing only 130 grams sells for Tk277 in Bangladesh.
Despite its demand in both local and international markets, no company here is making processed food with fish in large amounts. Although the production of fish is more than the demand, only shrimp is processed absolutely for exports.
A handful of food companies, including Paragon and Kazi Farms, produce four to five items such as fish finger, fish ball, crispy shrimp, and shrimp spring roll in a very small quantity. Apart from this, only dried fish is processed in the country.
However, people concerned say local farmers are not getting fair prices though the production of fish is high. Against this reality, many are planning to give up fish farming after incurring losses.
Researchers say there is no alternative to focusing on fish processing to get out of this situation. There is huge scope for expanding business in local and international markets by processing different types of fish.
According to data available with the livestock and fisheries ministry and the Bangladesh Frozen Foods Exporters Association (BFFEA), the country earned over $477 million in fiscal 2020-21 by exporting 77,000 tonnes of processed shrimp and marine fish.
On the other hand, the production of dried fish at this time was 62,561 tonnes. In all, the production of processed fish rose to 1.39 lakh tonnes compared to the country's fish yields of more than 45 lakh tonnes.
The Bangladesh Frozen Foods Exporters Association says there are 77 export-dependent fish processing plants approved by the European Union. The companies process shrimp and some marine fish and export them entirely.
The products include frozen shrimp and prawns, frozen fish, fresh and chilled fish, frozen fillets and steaks of fish, sharks shells skates and rays, shark fins and fish maws, salted and dehydrated fish and dry fish.
The companies involved in fish processing say that there are many types of processed chicken food in the country because it is easy to process.
But there are many risks involved in making fish products by processing fish, and the cost is much higher. That is why entrepreneurs are not going to play an important role in adding value to fish through processing for the local market.
Mashiur Rahman, chairman of Paragon Agro Foods Ltd, one of the frozen food producers, told The Business Standard that most of the frozen items are chicken-based.
"We are making two to three fish items, but these are very costly. That is why it is not possible to make many products," he added.
Those concerned say that boneless meat is needed for fish processing. By processing 1kg of pangas fish costing Tk200, a company gets only 35% boneless and skinless part while the remaining 65% is wasted.
There is no industry in Bangladesh to process different parts such as head and tail, which is available in all other countries. When other issues such as production and packaging costs are calculated, the price goes up a lot. Indeed, people can consume the entire fish for Tk200 only.
The technology for fish processing is also different. Large investments are required to build a processing plant. But when it comes to processing broiler chickens, there are not so many problems. Everyone is interested in broiler chickens as most of their parts can be processed. A processed chicken market has also been created, with which people have become accustomed.
Professor Dr AKM Nowsad Alam, of fisheries technology at the Bangladesh Agricultural University, Mymensingh, further simplified the matter.
He said that after fish is processed in different countries, traders sell it ready-to-eat or ready-to-cook in cans as it is skinless and boneless. But there are some reasons why this is not happening in Bangladesh.
"Local people are not accustomed to the oil or sauce that is put inside cans; they are accustomed to eating fresh fish. But it is popular among those who go abroad or come from abroad and in some upper-class families," he added.
He said that boneless fish has to be put in these cans and its production cost is also much higher. That is why the food processing industries are not interested in it.
Professor Dr Hossain Jamal, of the marine science and fisheries faculty at the University of Chittagong, said, "Those who are doing food processing in our country have made good progress in technology and plants. But only shrimp and some marine fish are being processed there for purposes of export only."
"Focus must be on research to develop products for the local market. Find out how to make diversified products by reducing costs," he added.
Efforts to produce processed fish food on, Bashundhara is bringing hilsa noodles
Professor Dr AKM Nowsad Alam has developed a technology for making soup and noodles with hilsa. The technology was handed over to Virgo Fish and Agro Process Ltd, a fish processing company in Mymensingh.
But the company could not move forward after its experimental production as it could not build a new production line by investing enough.
However, Bashundhara Group has now shown an interest here. It produces and markets noodles. It is learned that the company will soon start working on making hilsa noodles and soup with the technology.
Professor Dr AKM Nowsad Alam said, "Talks with Bashundhara are at the final stage. Now the work of the official contract is left to be completed. After that, it will start working on producing and marketing products."
Apart from this, the government is taking some initiatives. Sources in the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock said that from now on, the development projects to be undertaken by the Fisheries Department will include work on processing of fish and product diversification.
The department will work with fish producers and processors. People concerned think that this will speed up the product diversification of the fish.
Deputy Director (Finance and Planning) of the Fisheries Department Mohammad Ataur Rahman Khan told TBS, "We are working on several projects. The final DPP of none of these has yet been prepared. But, in all projects, work will be done on fish product diversification."
According to researchers, crispy pangas pickle and pangas powder have been made which can be fortified to make other products. They can be added to milk. They can be used in crackers, biscuits and noodles, through which protein can be enriched and fed to children. These now need to be commercialised.
Besides, barbecue of different fish such as tuna, coral and tilapia has become very popular in big cities like Dhaka and Chattogram.
Researchers also say as the value of fish increases, so does the habit of eating fish outside of vegetables through this approach.